The Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival (MDTWF) was founded by Coahoma Community College (CCC) in 1992, under the leadership of Dr. Vivian Presley, president of CCC from 1992 to 2013, with a $10,000 grant award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Clarksdale journalist/photographer Panny Mayfield, who was a part-time consultant for the Mississippi Arts Commission at the time, assisted Dr. Presley in writing the grant and has remained heavily involved ever since.
During the planning process in 1992, CCC utilized three key people to serve as consultants to help establish the festival. They included Dr. Ann Abadie, a member of the committee that planned the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, and served as the Center’s longtime associate director; Dr. Kenneth Holditch, professor at the University of New Orleans and expert on Mississippi and Southern Literature; and Professor Greg Boyd, the theatre director at Shelby State in Memphis (now known as Southwest Tennessee Community College).
Other scholars who served over the years as part of an unofficial but critical advisory team include Dr. Colby Kullman of the University of Mississippi, Dr. Ralph Voss of the University of Alabama, and American theatre director Erma Duricko.
Key members of CCC's Tennessee Williams Festival team in the early years included Dr. Hazeltine Fouce, Vanessa Long, Yvonne Stanford, Charles Reid, Jerone Shaw, Rita Hanfor, Henry Dorsey, Marilyn Starks, Florence Lucas, and Cheryl Barnes. CCC's strong support for the festival continues today through the leadership of CCC’s current president, Dr. Valmadge Towner, and his faculty and staff.
The long-running success of MDTWF has also been ensured by active involvement and support from many local organizations including the City of Clarksdale and Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, the Carnegie Public Library, the Clarksdale Woman’s Club, the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce and the Coahoma County Tourism Commission.
It is true that MDTWF has called on many volunteers from the Clarksdale/Coahoma County community over its history, but initial efforts by women including Eva Connell, Judy Flowers, Betty Gorsenger, Martha James, Betty Sue Maynard and Tana Pittman Vassel, truly gave the festival a firm foundation to grow on, and we are so grateful for their involvement.
In 2017, Panny Mayfield stepped down as lead organizer for MDTWF, leaving a hole that has been hard to fill. New York theater director, teacher and Williams scholar Karen Kohlhaas, founder and curator of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum in Clarksdale, collaborated with Jen Waller, director of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center/Cutrer Mansion, to organize and produce the 2018 and 2019 festivals and brought about innovative and new programming. In 2020, Dr. Matt Foss of the University of Toledo stepped up to take on the role of artistic director while Jen Waller still serves as the project director for Coahoma Community College. Kohlhaas, who is completing a documentary film about Williams' Mississippi Delta influences, continues to work with the festival.
Born as Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911, Tennessee Williams moved to Clarksdale with his mother, sister, and grandparents in 1917. His grandfather, Walter E. Dakin was the rector of Clarksdale's St. George's Episcopal Church until 1932. After Williams' father, Cornelius Williams, a traveling salesman, was promoted to a desk job in 1918, he moved his wife and children to St. Louis. Both Tennessee and his sister Rose returned regularly to Clarksdale to live with and then visit their grandparents as they grew up. The rectory they lived in is now a museum.
Williams would imbed Mississippi Delta landmarks, stories, and people in some of his most famous plays, including THE GLASS MENAGERIE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED, ORPHEUS DESCENDING, SUMMER AND SMOKE, ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE, and the film BABY DOLL, as well as dozens of short plays, stories, and poems.
Nearby Moon Lake is featured in all of Williams' Delta plays, as well as the former Moon Lake Club (known in the plays as Moon Lake Casino and currently named Uncle Henry's Place). Other locales and landmarks that inspired Williams include the towns of Lyon and Friar's Point, the Delta Planter's Bank, the White Star Pharmacy, the angel statue in Grange Cemetery, and many more.
Character names from Clarksdale neighbors and Williams' grandfather's parishioners include Blanche, Stella, Brick, Baby Doll, Laura, Wingfield, Cutrer, Gilliam and Baugh.